Which Mac should I buy?

Which Mac should you buy?

When it comes to purchasing a Mac, we've got the lowdown on each model to help you make a buying decision.

Mac mini

What is it? The Mac mini is Apple’s entry-level desktop Mac. It’s slower than Apple’s other desktop computers—the iMac and the Mac Pro—but it remains fast enough for general-purpose use.

Who’s it for? Apple targets first-time Mac users with the Mac mini. If you’re switching from a PC, you can use your PC’s keyboard and mouse with the Mac mini. The Mac mini is also ideal as a secondary Mac in your home, and it can integrate into your home entertainment center.

What are the specifications? What makes the Mac mini stand out is its small size. It doesn’t take up a lot of desk space.

Apple sells three Mac mini models. The $499 model has a 1.4GHz dual-core Core i5 CPU, a 5400-rpm 500GB hard drive, 4GB of memory and an integrated Intel HD Graphics 5000 GPU. The $699 model includes a 2.6GHz dual-core Core i5 processor, a 5400-rpm 1TB hard drive 8GB of memory, and Intel Iris Graphics. The $999 model has a 2.8GHz dual-core Core i5 processor, a 1TB Fusion Drive, 8GB of memory, and Intel Iris Graphics.

The Mac mini does not include a display, keyboard, or mouse, so you’ll have to provide your own—or you can customize your order to include these devices as extra-cost options.

Since the Mac mini lacks an optical drive, you need to buy an external USB optical drive if you want to read or burn CDs and DVDs.

How do I connect stuff? Like Apple’s other Macs, the Mac mini has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It also has four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, and an SDXC card slot. It also has a gigabit ethernet port, in case you want to connect to a wired network.

To connect a display, you can use the HDMI port or a Thunderbolt 2 port. You might have to buy an adapter if your display doesn’t have either HDMI or Mini DisplayPort (which connects to the Mac mini’s Thunderbolt port). If you own a display with VGA and/or DVI output, you’ll need either the Mini DisplayPort-to-VGA Adapter or the Mini DisplayPort-to-DVI Adapter, which each cost $29.

How fast is it? The Mac mini won’t set any speed records—it’s among the slowest Macs in Apple’s lineup. But don’t judge its performance too harshly. For general use (writing, email, Web, social media) and for editing short videos, the Mac mini does just fine.

Macworld’s buying advice: For new Mac users switching from a PC, the Mac mini is an excellent machine, if you don’t mind not having the latest processors. It’s a great choice for shoppers on a budget, or for someone who wants a second computer in the home. It handles everyday usage well. If, however, you want to use a Mac as a production machine for video editing or some other task that requires substantial processing power, consider an iMac.

iMac

Apple has two versions of the iMac. Let’s go over the standard iMac first, followed by the iMac with Retina 5K display.

What is it? The iMac is Apple’s iconic all-in-one computer. Made of aluminum, the iMac has a built-in display and looks stately as it sits on a desk. It also offers top-notch performance.

Who’s it for? The iMac is great for both novices and demanding users. It can handle general-purpose and heavy-duty tasks equally well. It’s ideal for someone who needs to buy a complete computer setup (keyboard, mouse or trackpad, and display) and wants to maximize workspace efficiency.

What are the specifications? Four standard iMac models are currently available. Three of them have 21.5-inch displays, while the other has a 27-inch display. All iMacs come standard with 8GB of memory and a 1TB hard drive.

The entry-level 21.5-inch $1099 iMac has a dual-core 1.4GHz Core i5 processor and Intel HD Graphics 5000 graphics. The 21.5-inch $1299 iMac has a 2.7GHz quad-core Core i5 processor and Intel Iris Pro integrated graphics. The 21.5-inch $1499 iMac includes a 2.9GHz quad-core Core i5 processor and a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 750M graphics processor with 1GB of video memory. The hard drives in the 21.5-inch iMac models are 5400-rpm drives.

You can’t upgrade the 21.5-inch iMac after you buy it, so consider paying an extra $200 at the outset for a memory upgrade to 16GB. The 21.5-inch iMac also offers a 1TB Fusion Drive upgrade or a flash storage upgrade. The $1299 and $1499 iMacs offer a 3.1GHz quad-core Core i7 processor upgrade for $200. The $1099 and $1299 models don’t have a processor upgrade.

The 27-inch $1799 iMac carries a 3.2GHz quad-core Core i5 processor and a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 755M graphics processor with 1GB of video memory. The hard drives in the 27-inch iMac is a 7200-rpm drive, with Fusion Drive or flash storage upgrades available.

You can upgrade the RAM on the 27-inch iMac easily. The machine has four RAM slots, accessible through the back. Apple installs the standard 8GB as a pair of 4GB memory modules, so you can add more RAM after you buy the system. Or if you prefer, you can upgrade the RAM at the point of purchase to 16GB ($200) or 32GB ($600).

The iMac comes with Apple’s Wireless Keyboard and Magic Mouse. If you order online from the Apple Store, however, you can switch the keyboard to a wired version with a numeric keypad, and switch the mouse to an Apple Mouse or a Magic Trackpad, for no extra fee. You can opt to get both a Magic Mouse and a Magic Trackpad for $69 extra.

The iMac does not have an optical drive. If you want to read or burn CDs and DVDs, you need to buy an external USB optical drive.

How do I connect stuff? Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are built-in. All iMacs have four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports (not Thunderbolt 2), a gigabit ethernet port, and an SDXC card slot.

If you want to connect a FireWire device, you’ll need to use a Thunderbolt-to-FireWire Adapter. USB 2.0 devices can connect to the iMac’s USB 3.0 ports.

How fast is it? The iMacs are among Apple’s fastest computers, but their hard drives are a performance bottleneck. If you can upgrade to a Fusion Drive or to flash storage, you’ll gain a significant performance boost. The $1299 iMac’s graphics performance is good enough for games, but the discrete graphics in the other iMacs are much faster.

The $1099 iMac has an attractive price, but you make huge sacrifices in performance. Our benchmarks show a significant difference between the $1099 and $1299 models. Even the 11-inch MacBook Air with 256GB of flash storage is faster than the $1099 iMac.

Macworld’s buying advice: For new Mac owners, the $1299 iMac is a good alternative to the Mac mini, providing a nice performance increase. If performance is your top priority, consider a Fusion Drive upgrade, or even a faster-processor option. On a 21.5-inch iMac, the 8GB of RAM should be fine; but buying the RAM upgrade at the point of purchase could help you avoid some hassle in the future. The 27-inch iMac is ideal for demanding users who need as much speed as they can get.

If you already have an iMac that’s less than three years old, the new iMac may be a harder sell. You’ll see a performance boost, but you’ll sacrifice some features, such as the SuperDrive.

Read our complete review of the 21.5-inch iMac/1.4GHz (Mid 2014)

Read our complete review of the Late 2013 iMac

iMac with Retina display

iMac with Retina 5K display

iMac with Retina 5K display

What is it? The iMac with Retina display is like Apple’s standard iMac, but with a ultra high resolution display.

Who’s it for? The Retina iMac is designed for professionals who work with high-resolution videos, photos, or images. Or it’s for the demanding user who wants the best image quality for everyday use.

What are the specifications? There are two standard configurations. The $1999 model has a quad-core 3.3GHz Core i5 processor, a 1TB 7200-rpm hard drive, and a 2GB AMD Radeon R9 M290 graphics processor. The $2299 model has a quad-core 3.5GHz Core i5 processor, a 1TB Fusion Drive, and a 2GB AMD Radeon R9 M290X graphics processor.

Both models come with a 27-inch Retina display with a 5120‑by‑2880 resolution. The display is an IPS display, so its viewing angle is wide enough to let you to see a clear picture at any angle.

Other specifications for both Retina iMac models are similar to the standard 27-inch iMac: 8GB of user-accessible memory; wireless keyboard and mouse; no optical drive.

How do I connect stuff? Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are built-in. All Retina iMacs have four USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ports, a gigabit ethernet port, and an SDXC card slot.

If you want to connect a FireWire device, you’ll need to use a Thunderbolt-to-FireWire Adapter. USB 2.0 devices can connect to the iMac’s USB 3.0 ports.

How fast is it? The Retina iMacs are among Apple’s fastest computers when it comes to single-core performance. When it comes to multi-core speed, the Mac Pros with more than four cores are faster machines. You can improve the multi-core performance by opting for the $250 4.0GHz Core i7 upgrade in the $2299 model—the total price goes up to $2449, but that’s a small price to pay for the performance boost. The $1999 Retina iMac does not offer a processor upgrade.

Macworld’s buying advice: The allure of the Retina display is strong; you’ll love the way it looks. You may not love the way the price looks, however. If you are hesitant about the price, it won’t take long to get over it, once you’ve used the Retina iMac for a couple of weeks. Here’s a thought that might convince you: Better 5K displays, such as Dell’s UP2715K, costs $2500—more than the Retina iMac.

Read our complete review of the 27-inch iMac/3.5GHz with Retina 5K display (Late 2014)

Read our complete review of the 27-inch iMac/3.3GHz with Retina 5K display (Mid 2015)

Mac Pro

The new Mac Pro (2013).

What is it? The Mac Pro is Apple’s workstation. It’s designed for professionals who need a powerful and flexible machine.

Who’s it for? The Mac Pro is ideal for professionals who work with applications that use as many processing cores as possible—video-editing applications, image-editing software, 3D programs, and the like.

What are the specifications? You’ll find two standard-configuration models. The $2999 Mac Pro has a 3.7GHz quad-core Xeon E5 processor, 12GB of memory, and dual AMD FirePro D300 graphics processors with 2GB of video memory. The $3999 Mac Pro provides a 2.5GHz six-core Xeon E5 processor, 16GB of memory, and dual AMD FirePro D500 graphics processors with 3GB of video memory. Both models include 256GB of flash storage.

The Mac Pro offers buyers some appealing build-to-order options. You can add up to 64GB of memory, upgrade to 512GB or 1TB of flash storage, upgrade the graphics, or upgrade the processor (to a 12-core CPU).

How do I connect stuff? Unlike the previous Mac Pro, the new Mac Pro has no internal options for connecting PCI expansion cards or internal storage drives. The new Mac Pro relies on its six external Thunderbolt 2 ports for add-ons. If you have an old Mac Pro tower and PCI cards and/or drives that you want to use, you’ll need to buy a Thunderbolt expansion chasis for the cards and external cases for the drives.

Wi-Fi and Bluetooth come built-in on the new Mac Pro. The machine has four USB 3 ports, dual gigabit ethernet jacks, and HDMI. Audio professionals should know that the Mac Pro has a combined optical digital audio input and analog output minijack. The computer doesn’t have FireWire connections.

How fast is it?  Apple says that the new Mac Pro is a “video editing powerhouse” capable of handling 4K video editing, that 3D applications will see “ultrafast rendering,” and on and on. And our first set of tests reflect that. If you use Final Cut Pro X, you’ll see huge performance gains. If you use applications that can take advantage of as many processing cores as are available, then the Mac Pro really shines.

However, if you’re more of a “prosumer” than a professional—someone who is a expert Mac user, but doesn’t use high-end apps—then you’re not going to see a big jump in performance. You’re probably better off with an iMac, especially if you use the iLife apps a lot. iLife actually performs better with the processors in the iMac than those in the Mac Pro.

Macworld’s buying advice: If you are doing professional work and require extreme processing capability, the Mac Pro will serve you well. If you’re a power user who doesn’t need expansion capability, and uses iLife often instead of any pro apps, consider choosing an iMac or a Retina MacBook Pro instead.

Read our complete review of the 3.7GHz quad-core Mac Pro

Read our complete review of the 3.5GHz 6-core Mac Pro

Read our complete review of the 3.0GHz 8-core Mac Pro

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a previous article that includes the most up-to-date information as of June 17, 2015.

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